Research is showing that cover crops such as perennial grasses can improve soil health, reduce run-off and potentially offer growers additional revenue opportunities all while improving the ag operation’s sustainability. But how can a grower better assess what the financial bottom line actually is should cover crops be implemented? This question now has an easier answer thanks to the Land Stewardship Project (LSP). The organization has developed a new tool coined the “Cropping Systems Calculator“ and is available for farmers, ranchers, non-farm landowners and natural resource professionals. The tool enables the user to crunch the numbers and identify practical ways to achieve continuous living cover on the land.
“We already know that growing cover crops, diversifying rotations and establishing more perennial pasture grasses on the land is good for water quality and wildlife habitat,” said LSP’s Robin Moore. “But that does little good if farmers can’t afford to make these changes to their operations. Now the Calculator can help figure out the financial pluses and minuses of covering fields beyond the typical 110-day corn-soybean growing season.”
The Cropping Systems Calculator was developed as part of the Chippewa 10 percent Project initiative. The program was a collaboration of LSP, the Chippewa River Watershed Project – located in West-Central Minnesota – along with several other organizations and agencies. The initiative is working to help growers and other landowners develop profitable methods for protecting water quality.
The Calculator is an Excel-based tool that allows the comparison of two crop rotations, each up to six years in length. It provides average yearly returns as well as a year-by-year breakdown for each rotation. Another feature of the Calculator is that it allows a comparison of various grazing systems on a per-acre basis.
A producer can compare types of cattle (cow/calf, stocker, feeder-to-finish, custom grazing) as well as grazing management style (continuous, basic rotational, managed intensive rotational, mob). In fact, the Calculator is relatively unique in that it can compare row-cropping to various grazing systems on a per-acre basis, according to LSP’s Rebecca Wasserman-Olin, who developed the tool in consultation with various other economic experts, as well as growers and producers.
“The Cropping Systems Calculator is not expected to provide an exact amount of income a farmer can rely on earning the following season, but rather a good estimate of the range of returns possible,” explained Wasserman-Olin. “The goal of the Calculator is to give farmers a way to make informed management decisions that aren’t simply based on doing it the way we’ve always done it.”
The Calculator’s default figures were gathered from the University of Minnesota’s farm financial and production benchmark database-otherwise known as FINBIN-that covers a 10-county area encompassing the Chippewa River watershed region. These defaults can be easily changed by the users to more accurately reflect the realities of their own operations, thus allowing them to customize the Cropping Systems Calculator to their situation.
Members of the Chippewa 10% team have spent that past few months working with crop and livestock farmers in the Chippewa watershed to test and fine-tune the Calculator under real world conditions. One of those farmers, Byron Braaten of Starbuck, Minn., was surprised when the Calculator showed that planting row crops wasn’t the only practical choice on his operation.
“If you feed it your honest numbers you get an honest answer, and at least on my farm, it supports more cover crops, more diversity,” added Braaten. “We’re brainwashed into thinking that corn and beans are the only way to make money, but this tool helped me see what is profitable on my farm, what works with my numbers.”